Project Communications: Barriers & Gateways

Sometimes, somewhere between the moment someone speaks and another responds, communication becomes broken.

In the world of project communications, a case of broken telephone is often marked with uncertainty around reporting lines, overshooting deliverable due dates, and the inability to track the progress of key dependencies. There are many contributing factors nudging project comms to go off the rails, but in our experience, the most cited “culprits” are often credited to recurring communication barriers.

For the purposes of identifying barriers and their counterpart gateways, we’ll base these on the following case study.

StreamFlix, a South African streaming subscription service, has since launching acquired 5000 subscribers. StreamFlix’s catalogue includes unlimited viewing of local and international television shows and movies for a monthly subscription fee of R60. Compared to local and international competitor streaming services, the subscription fee falls in the mid-range. 

Growth of the company has plateaued and the Board of StreamFlix have approved a budget to appoint a Project Manager to drive efforts to increase the company’s subscriber base. An increase in the monthly subscription fee also needs to be effected for the company to turn a profit in the next financial year. 

If the target of doubling the subscription base cannot be met, cuts will have to be made to underperforming departments in the company. 

A new Project Manager (PM) is appointed, and the CEO asks the PM to relay the Board’s message to the various Team Leads in StreamFlix. These Leads will be responsible for nominating members in their areas to form part of the project team.  

The Project Manager distributes a 15-minute meeting request to the various Leads, in which the subject line reads “Town Hall: StreamFlix 10K Project”. Context, and the points to be discussed, have not been included in the meeting request. 

During the meeting, the Project Manager relays the Board’s directive, and shares that should the project fail to meet its target, that cuts to departments will be made. 

The CEO is not present. 

After sharing the directive and the project’s business case, panic ensues and the Team Leads raise questions aimed at understanding whose departments are likely to be impacted as well as how additional project work will be managed along with their team’s day-to-day activities. 

The PM informs the group that the relevant impacted teams will be notified at the appropriate time, and that no more information can be divulged at this time. The meeting’s time runs out and the PM rushes off to her next meeting. As the Team Leads disband, an air of negativity is left behind which seems to grow heavier as each person exits the room.    

Later that afternoon, Team Leads receive an email with an attachment labelled “Resource Plan v1.0” and a “friendly request to share project team member nominations before the end of the week”. 

The general climate at StreamFlix is relatively tense over the coming weeks, and employees have picked up a noticeable temperature change across the organisation. Rumours have been running the mill that the Board have decided to cut the new in-house subtitling department, and that a task team has been assembled to assess the effectiveness of this department. As a great sum was invested into a hiring drive and to get this department up and running, the company is at risk of liquidation. There have also been rumours that company benefits, such as employees’ subsidised StreamFlix subscription and medical aid contributions will fall away. 

More time passes and StreamFlix employees are still left in the dark as to what the future of the company holds. Internal newsletters and memos recently distributed have not shared any insight and Team Leads are not able to share any additional information. 

Subscribers (which include employee subscriptions) recently received a monthly increase notification via email and this news has not been well received. Since the notification was distributed, 15% of subscribers cancelled their subscriptions. Upon further investigation, it was found that many of these subscribers were employees. As family and friends of employees also make up a great portion of the subscriber base, the future of StreamFlix is looking gloomy at best. 

Being a Spokesperson vs. Leading the Change

Identified barrier: Nominating the Project Manager to be the spokesperson for the change.

As seen in the StreamFlix case study, panic erupted during the meeting when Team Leads were informed of potential changes to their team’s structure. This news was also broken to them by the Project Manager, someone new whom they’ve not previously met. Employees prefer to hear messages about change from the leadership team whom they know and trust.

One of the biggest and most common mistakes made in projects today is to have all communication related to the project funnelled via the project team.

Gateway: Leading the Changethrough the CEO (or their equivalent, like the Project Sponsor)

For organisational messages about change, be this to team structure, policies, or ways of work, employees want to hear from the CEO or their equivalent. In our case study, the CEO wasn’t present at the kick-off meeting. This was a missed opportunity to model the desired mind-set and behaviour, and to encourage and build a strong and committed leadership team to support the project.

In leading the change, the CEO’s messaging should include why the change is happening, the risks of not changing, the customer or competitor issues driving the need to change, and how this change aligns to the organisation’s vision.  The CEO, or their equivalent, also needs to engage others openly, and spotlight successes as they emerge.

Megaphone vs. a Conversational Approach

Identified barrier: Relaying a directive from the Board

While business performance, financial targets and strategic objectives are normally reviewed and adjusted by the board, initiating a project “because of a directive” will certainly not inspire great drive or effort from those who need to execute the project.

In our case study, the business case behind why the project is needed, and the positive change it will bring about, has not been properly packaged. The Project Manager takes a megaphone approach by relaying the objectives shared by the board. Soon after this message is relayed, the PM shares a resource plan with the various Leads, which hasn’t allowed the Leads enough time to process the information shared during the Town Hall.

Gateway: Create opportunities for conversation

Team members find greater meaning and motivation when they are included in the conversation and if their questions and concerns can be discussed. This can be done in a one-on-one session or in a relevant forum.

At an individual level, Team Leads will need to develop their understanding of and feelings about the change. If they are expected to support the project’s efforts, and to assign members of their team to drive and execute project activities, they too will need to feel confident and comfortable that they are able to respond to questions that might be directed to them about the project.

“Need to know” vs. transparency around information

Identified barrier: Only informing the impacted teams

In our case study above, the PM indicates that the relevant impacted teams will be informed at the appropriate time. Simply communicating that not all the answers are known, and giving employees a date to expect answers is still more effective than redirecting questions or remaining silent.

Individuals are also less likely to trust what they don’t know, and a leadership team in which levels of trust and confidence are high, is much more likely to drive and support project activities.

Gateway: Sharing information widely and being transparent about what is known

If all the details of the project have not been cemented, the known information still needs to be shared.

Holding on to information makes way for assumptions to be formed, and for these assumptions to be shared with others which can negatively impact what the project has set out to achieve (see more on this further below). Communicate what is known, what is still unknown, and when the project team expects to know more.

Ensure that this information is shared widely, frequently and in small increments.

Information overload vs. bite sized comms

Identified barrier: Sharing information that has not been properly packaged

While transparency around information should be a non-negotiable, planning when and how much information is shared is just as important. Sharing too much information upfront will likely result in overwhelm and in creating negative feelings if a foundational understanding about what the project intends to achieve is not understood.  

In the StreamFlix case study, the PM neglects to include an agenda or any contextual info around the Town Hall in the meeting request. Attendees would not have been expecting the information that the PM was about to share. This adds an unintended element of shock or surprise when the information is delivered.

Considering the weight that the info of potential departmental cuts holds by the Team Leads, this would also have been better shared at a later point, and once the fundamentals of the “why” and “what” of the project had been addressed and understood. Sharing the resource plan shortly after the Town Hall meeting was also not ideal and this should have been shared a couple of days to weeks after the meeting.  

Gateway: Developing and sequencing key messages

It’s essential to create a Communications Plan which includes the key messaging, the senders, and the channels these will be shared from.  This plan will help to ensure that you communicate the appropriate information at the suitable time. Structuring comms around key project activities and dates with the help of a comms plan will also ensure that everyone is in the know and equipped with the relevant information.

Looking at what unfolded in our case study, the PM would have been better able to share “why this change is happening” and “what the risk of not changing is”, had the key points been developed beforehand. Ideally, these key messages should have been developed and shared by the CEO. When a project is just starting out, sticking to these two points is sufficient as too many details can overwhelm and distract employees. Key messaging should also be supported by and reflected in written email communications, as well as on an FAQ page hosted online, which can be referred to when needed.

Throughout the lifecycle of the project, the ‘why’ needs to be reinforced and repeated, especially if there are timelapses between the first communication and the start of implementation. Other key questions to be addressed soon after should include “How will I be impacted?” and “How will my team be impacted?”.

Early and frequent communication lays the foundation for an engaged team to successfully drive the project’s activities.

Assuming vs. Articulating

Identified barrier: Lack of project awareness through a lack of communication

When communication starts late, there is an uphill battle to share the necessary information and dispel misinformation and rumours. As can be seen in the case study, a rumour can spread like wildfire and have a detrimental impact on the success of a project if left unchecked. After the Town Hall meeting with Team leads, a complete break in communication becomes evident with no additional efforts being made, leaving StreamFlix project team members and employees in the dark.

Gateway: Reinforce key messages five to seven times

According to Prosci, key messages need to be repeated between five to seven times, before these are internalised. Part and parcel of how employees (and people in general) make sense of the complexities of their day to day is by filling in gaps with the information available to them. Individuals also often hear what they expect to hear, and often this leads to false conclusions. This makes way for multiple interpretations, which can be dangerous in the world of projects where an integrated team needs to work together to accomplish a shared objective. It’s important to conduct dipstick surveys to review the effectiveness of communications, and if needed, course correct and adapt these.

In Summary

  • Lead the change your project will bring about through the CEO or equivalent.  Don’t funnel all project communications via the project team.
  • Create opportunities for conversations and for questions to be asked. An engaged team who feels that they are heard will be much more likely to drive a project to success.
  • Share information that is known, and what remains to be found out, widely.
  • Develop a Communications Plan to assist with sequencing and relaying key messages. Don’t share too many information items at once to ensure your key messages stick.
  • Lastly, avoid breaks in communication by articulating and reinforcing your key messaging by repeating these throughout the project’s lifecycle.